Politics: The Hand of God

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I stood gripping the door handled so tight I thought it would snap off. I drew a deep breath.

“How twisted are you?” I asked Rep. Rokeberg and the rest of the house leadership. “Over the last two years you have stripped my committee chairmanships, helped block my legislation and made every attempt to silence me. And now you’re asking for my support? You have some fucking nerve.”

I slammed the caucus door and was quickly met by a hallway of reporters and staffers alike who had gathered outside the speaker’s office. I ignored questions and took the stairs two steps at a time to my office on the fourth floor. 

Meanwhile, the house leadership had no choice but to reach out to an ill Rep. Ogan to return to the capitol in order to meet the two-thirds vote threshold needed to extend the session. The next day in the press, Rep. Kevin Meyer would be quoted as saying, “We had to raise him from his sleep to come to the capitol.”

Back in my office I locked the door, left the light off and pulled out a bottle of Tanqueray. I thought about where it all went wrong. 

The 2000 November general election should have come and gone, without any drama. With an easy primary win, a 67% approval rating in my district, and no general election opponent, it should have been an uneventful election. But it wasn’t. It should have been an opportunity to build bridges. But it wasn’t. It should have been an opportunity to move forward instead of fighting old battles. But it wasn’t. The whole story began to unravel a year earlier.

With oil at $10 per barrel and Alaska facing a billion dollar budget gap, the session of 1999 was dominated by the yawning fiscal gap. The house led the way by creating a fiscal plan that relied on using permanent fund earnings, by capping the dividend at around $1,300. The state’s massive budget deficit had put the state on track to burn through its savings accounts in a little over two years.

Still, some lawmakers were afraid of addressing the serious problem with state finances. Many used arguments of impending political doom, or the need to cut government more, of course without having any ideas where to cut. But while debate is to be expected, not only did a few refuse to take action, but they consistently hampered any attempt by others to find common ground on solutions.

One of the worst influences was Ramona Barnes, a veteran of nearly two decades in the legislature and a well-deserved reputation for being an enforcer. There is an old saying, “in politics you don’t make enemies, you collect them.” By the time I was first elected to the legislature in 1998, Ramona had been collecting enemies for  20 years.

After years of navigating the good old boy environment, Barnes became a legendary legislative force during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Called not so affectionately “Rambona,” she was able to drive tears from colleagues and lobbyists alike. During a heated debate in caucus over a bill, I witnessed Barnes shred Rep. Bev Masek so bad that she broke down and cried.

During her political career, Barnes achieved more leadership positions than any women in the history of the Alaska State House. She forged close relationships with several top donors, which allowed her to control the naughty or nice list. She schooled herself on procedure and strategy better than anyone I served with. She crafted a business model that relied on young conservative soldiers to protect her flank as her days grew on and her power grew more ceremonial than codifying.

But most importantly, she didn’t take kindly to dissent in the caucus room. and it was all delivered in a package that could range from a sweet grandmother to a class five hurricane.

Ironically it was Ramona Barnes who was the first veteran legislator to stand up for me. After rising on the floor during special orders to take issue with comments that a rural Democratic legislator made at a prior days lunch, all hell broke loose. Just ten days into the 1999 session and a Juneau Empire reporter was writing that I had poured gasoline on the urban/rural divide fire.

However, it was Barnes who raised to my defense shortly after my comments. “That lawmaker has a right to say what he thinks is right,’ she pronounced on the floor. Her comments coming on the heels of a fairly uneasy at ease that saw Democratic House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz lean over my desk and warn me “If you ever. Ever. Go after one of my guys, you and I are going to have real problems.”

Recounting that experience years later with my friend Rep. Eric Croft, he would tell me over beers “that’s when we knew to start watching if you’d cross over to the dark side.” But in the end, I realized Ramona didn’t represent the dark side. She saw the changes coming and she didn’t like them. Her declining power and stature. A new generation of lawmakers biting at her heels. She became a cross between Margo Channing and Jane Hudson.

But shortly after my initial encounter with Barnes in January 1999, we crossed swords a number of times, usually over her attempts to bully other lawmakers from supporting a fiscal fix. But the defining moment came on September 26, 1999, during a closed caucus session on one of Alaska’s most contentious issues; subsistence.

Governor Tony Knowles called the legislature into special session on September 22, 1999 to take one last chance of getting a long fought solution to stave off the October 1, 1999 deadline to prevent a federal takeover of subsistence game management. The issue of a subsistence hunting preference for rural Alaska had been debated and litigated for decades. The purpose of the special session was for the legislature to seize a last chance opportunity to propose a constitutional amendment that would be put before voters in 2000.

Due to a conflicting business trip to Tampa, I was delayed arriving in Juneau until September 24. The bill was referred to the House Resources Committee and hadn’t had a full hearing, even though Gov. Knowles had introduced it two days earlier. A Sunday caucus was called to address the frustration with the resources chairman, Rep. Scott Ogan who refused to move the legislation out of his committee for a vote.

During my first year enduring closed majority caucus meetings, I quickly realized that most were painful exercises of sitting in uncomfortable chairs giving opinions on issues that had already been decided by the leadership. Very rarely did contrarian arguments seem to make it past the heavy wooden door. But this time was an exception.

Rep. Ogan was a vocal opponent of the proposed subsistence amendment. He, along with the entire Mat-Valley contingency, adamantly opposed the amendment. They represented a fairly rural area and were not in favor of any type of compromise. Ogan continued to refuse to hold a hearing on the bill, even after being directed by Speaker Brian Porter.

Meanwhile, Barnes, who also opposed the subsistence amendment, stood by Ogan citing his right as committee chairman to hold the bill. She argued that pulling a bill or rolling the chair as it’s called, was against caucus rules.

Barnes always occupied the same seat in the corner of the caucus room near the door. She’d always pull her chair apart from neatly aligned rows, invariably to reinforce the fact that she had her own separate universe. She had her own army of foot soldiers surrounding her that she could deploy without notice. Names like Vic Kohring, Scott Ogan, Bev Masek, Jerry Sanders, that would snap to attention at the slightest sign of Barnes distress.

However Speaker Porter’s tolerance had run out with Barnes argument, and he signaled the desire to move the bill to the floor for a vote without any more delay. Porter, a former Anchorage Chief of Police, shared the story about how he was rolled as a committee chair during his early days as a lawmaker on an issue that he knew as a former police chief would increase the risk on law enforcement officers.

The caucus debate was charged with emotion. When Porter announced his intention of introducing a new bill and having it bypass the house resources committee to avoid another Ogan pocket veto, Barnes’ soldiers stormed out amid threats to quit the caucus if we rolled the chair.

Rep. Kohring did one better, and promptly jumped in front of the television cameras and quit the caucus complaining that we weren’t “real Republicans.” The arguments inside the caucus room kept getting ratcheted up in tone and tenor.

“We need a floor vote”, I said when it was my turn to speak. “Every pair of eyes in this state is watching this building. We’ve been here five days, spent over one hundred grand and haven’t even had a full hearing on the bill. My constituent emails say we look like bumbling idiots.”

Silence. Except for a muffled laugh from Rep. Richard Foster seated in the very back corner. From that moment on, bumbling idiot became a gag line for Foster. A year later he sent me a note on the floor of the house during a heated debate and wrote, “if you want, I’ll call Austerman a bumbling idiot for not seeing the bigger picture.”

Foster’s muffled laugh was going to be the last laugh of the afternoon.

As I turned my head, out of the corner of my eye I saw Barnes charging at me from across the room, screaming “I’m not a bumbling idiot.” Her eyes bulging in anger, her arms swinging wildly. I froze like a duck on a pond. The only thing I could say was “Oh Shit.”

She drew closer. Three feet and closing. I could smell the cigarettes. That’s when the hand of God intervened.

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